A Return to Reason in Consumer Behavior: an Hermeneutical Approach


John O'Shaughnessy (1985) ,"A Return to Reason in Consumer Behavior: an Hermeneutical Approach", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 305-311.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 305-311


John O'Shaughnessy, Columbia University


How we go about researching buyer behavior depends on what we take the consumer to be. The positivistic tradition takes consumers to be passive entities responding to the push and pull of past impressed forces and current situational stimuli. This mechanical model of the consumer is reflect-d in both the stimulus-response (S - R) and the stimulus-organism-response (S - O - R) models underlying most research methodologies. Positivism, as a conception of science, claims that the behavior of all phenomena (both things and people) needs to be studied using the same scientific method; that the only true scientific explanation is the causal type of explanation (since everything is subject to causal laws) and that all forms of teleological explanations (i.e. explanations based on behavior being purposeful and goal-directed) should be rejected as nonscientific.

Critics of positivism do not deny that things can be done to a person that cause him or her to behave in a certain way. But such involuntary behavior should be distinguished from intentional action which is purposeful action mediated by meanings, deliberation on consequences, and the formation of intentions that are all part of some performance like shopping.

Although the research methodologies used to study consumer behavior have a positivistic bias, I do not believe that those doing the research completely endorse a positivistic view of the consumer. They are driven by their methodology to adopt such a position in the absence of alternative approaches that carry the hallmark of scientific respectability. Yet, as Harre (a professor of philosophy of science at Oxford and a former scientist) and Secord (the American social psychologist) point out, positivism rests on an outdated concept of science (Harre and Secord, 1973). They recommend what amounts to a hermeneutical approach to the study of intentional action while acknowledging there are gray areas which are "enigmatic" in that a priori it is never certain in these cases whether a causal explanation or an hermeneutical explanation is most appropriate. They argue (p. 28)

1. Human beings must be treated as agents acting according to rule, and it must be realized that it is unscientific to treat them as anything else.

2. Social behavior must be conceived of as actions mediated by meanings, not responses caused by stimuli.

3. The theory of movements, physiology, must be clearly separated from Psychology, the theory of actions.

4. It must be clearly appreciated that most human social behavior cannot be made intelligible under the mechanistic, causal paradigm.

5. Reasons can be used to explain actions, and not all reasons can be treated as causes in the mechanistic sense, though in some special cases causes may be cited as reasons.

6. Lay explanations of behavior provide the best mode] for psychological theory, and properly considered they can be seen to be actually more in accordance with the actual methodology of real natural science than is the positivist methodology which provided the old models of science which psychologists have copied.


Hermeneutics seeks to provide an objective understanding cc meaningful phenomena. Hermeneutics in origin sought criteria for the interpreting of sacred texts; texts for which criteria for interpreting them was assumed to exist as a matter of faith. Later hermeneutics became the theory and practice of interpretation. Its most modern form can be found in the work of Gadamer (1975). This modern view of hermeneutics should be distinguished from the notion that hermeneutics is concerned with empathetic understanding. Hermeneutics is, of course, concerned with understanding but with understanding the meaning to the agent of his or her intentional actions and not with the empathetic (or psychologistic) sense of understanding.

Intentional actions get their meaning from being part of the performance of some intended act and hermeneutics seeks an interpretation of such meanings for the agent. We often need such understanding if we are to get the most out of survey data. Survey 'facts' do not speak for themselves but need to be interpreted against some background understanding of the consumer. A 'detached' analyst's viewpoint is still a biased viewpoint since what is labeled findings is laced with conjectures reflecting theoretical expectancies. Marketers recognize this and the hermeneutic dimension when investigating perceptions even if they unduly restrict the perceptions they investigate.

Under the heading of hermeneutics falls the structuralism of Levi-Strauss, Chomsky's work in linguistics, phenomenology, interpretive sociology, ethnomethodology and most cultural anthropology. I would also include much of the work of those analytic philosophers concerned with linguistic analysis and, more specifically, those concerned with that sub-branch of mental philosophy known as the 'theory of action.'

This paper is based in the main on the philosophical contribution to the hermeneutical tradition. However, as Howard (1982) points out, it is not usual to group their contribution to understanding intentional action under the heading of hermeneutics. Until recently, in fact, analytic philosophy was .. defender of positivism. Today theories of action support a teleological model of intentional action and/or of intentional action being rule-governed. Although the rule-following paradigm of intentional action contrasts with the S-R or b-O-R models, there are philosophers who view intentional action guided by reasons and rules as causally induced. In fact the author of one well-known philosophical (teleological) theory of action (Goldman, 1970) is at pains to reconcile his model with current causal, psychological models. However, whether rules and reasons act as causes is a controversy further sharpened by philosophers' inability to agree on the concept of cause.

The theory of action in philosophy is concerned with explicating the meaning of the various concepts of action (words like 'want', 'decision', 'choice', 'preference', 'intention', 'habit', and so on); with critically evaluating the assumptions and criteria used by psychologists and with developing a view of the nature of intentional action.

Antipositivistic analytic philosophers draw a distinction between things done to a person and things done by a person (Harre and Secord, 1973). Things done by a person are intentional actions which are matters of interest to mental philosophers. The interest lies in seeking the logic of action. This can be contrasted to some extent with the non-philosophic hermeneutic tradition (essentially a continental European tradition) where the focus lies on identifying how the process of action came to be that way.

All philosophic interpretive explanations of intentional action use dispositional concepts like goals, wants, beliefs and intentions and (like history, economics and the decision models in buyer behavior) assume a degree of rationality as a heuristic principle.

Winch's (1958) work is seminal in philosophical hermeneutics. This little book was my own introduction to the idea of intentional action as a rule-following behavior and the approach of Harre and Secord (1973) to rule-identification owes its essence to his work. Winch, a student of the later Wittgenstein, built on Wittgenstein's ideas. However, he was not concerned with developing any model of the process leading to the rules lying behind intentional action but simply focused on defending the concept of rule-following behavior as opposed to the search for causal mechanisms. Today Winch's work might well be categorized as a linguistic conception of interpretive sociology (Bleicher, 1982). Interpreting behavior to Winch is analogous to interpreting a language in that both are rule-governed. The very possibility of intersubjective understanding between and among people rests on the assumption of shared meanings about the rules being followed. Interpreting a protocol statement containing a consumer's thoughts on buying resembles the interpretation of a text. But there are problems. There are the problems of identifying all the relevant meanings and distinguishing between justifying reasons and the motivating reasons on which rules are based. However, as frequently pointed out, bias in protocol statements is no more disturbing than the 'impossibility in the physical sciences of knowing for certain whether one's theoretical explanations are correct'. There is also a hermeneutic dimension to the physical sciences in that the 'facts' investigated are always symbolically structured. The data of any experiment are always interpreted in the light of tentative theories that are constrained by language.

Harre and Secord (1973) have been the most explicit on the problem of discovering the rules lying behind intentional action. They give the name episode to any sequence of happenings in which human beings engage that has a unity and structure. Thus we might speak of the shopping episode to cover the whole set of actions involved in choosing a brand. A description of the actions performed (for example, evaluating brands) and the act achieved (for example, the purchase of brand X) is termed a description of the act-action structure of the episodes.

Harre and Secord give the name ethogeny to the process of rule identification. The ethogenic process consists of first grasping the meaning of the situation for the agent (for example, the consumer), which involves collecting accounts (anticipatory, contemporaneous, and retrospective) from the agent. The key words (or constructs) used by the consumer are the basis for identifying the reasons or rules being followed. Thus if someone says she bought product X because it was 'familiar', it is in the idea of familiarity that we look for the rule (for example, 'I buy what is most familiar'). The meaning of the situation for the individual consumer emerges in the form of the reasons given to justifying buying actions taken. Where different accounts occur, these are 'negotiated' to get agreement.


Figure l shows a model of intentional buying action. It has been built up in an eclectic way from the various writings of philosophers interested in that branch of mental philosophy known as 'theory of action'. Much of the model's descriptive content (some of which is discussed below) however, comes from the analysis of several hundred consumer protocol statements collected by students over a period of ten years. These statements are consumers' accounts (anticipatory, contemporaneous, and retrospective) for their choosing and buying some brand. Consumers in effect just talked about their proposed buy, during buying and after purchase revealing in their own words whatever came to them at the time that seemed relevant to the purchase. Analysis followed the method suggested by Harre and Secord to identify the rules being applied.


Goals in Buying

Goals in buying are part of that set of goals representing people's vision of the preferred life. Such goals find expression in vague sets of wants. Between the most general of goals (e.g., to be healthy) and a specific product/brand choice is a gap filled by sub-goals, and sub-sub-goals that reflect these higher level goals and beliefs about means and the relative values (priorities) among goals. Thus, between the goal of being healthy and the buying of vitamin tablets lies a gap that is fillet with such secondary goals as being physically able to work, being free of mental problems, and so on. These are expressions of the goal of being healthy as is the buying of vitamin tablets.

Goals at any level do change. A change in circumstances, education, experience can add or subtract goals, intensify them or reduce their importance. Because visions of the preferred life are apt to be hazy, there s a corresponding lack of clarity about goals in general and hence about wants which are an expression of goals. But such vagueness all round may not lessen the intensity with which certain wants are pursued given their satisfaction can become an end in itself. In any case, marketing can and does get consumers to pursue additional goals that are consistent with the preferred life vision by helping them visualize what it would be like to achieve the state of affairs implied by the goal. Similarly, marketers can influence goal priorities by dramatizing the consequences of neglecting some particular goal (e.g., body hygiene). Vagueness of the preferred life vision and the tenuous link between this vision and the wants that are an expression of that vision make persuasion easier.

Mary Douglas, the cultural anthropologist, (in a book to which Baron Isherwood, the junior author, contributed the economics section) argues there are certain general goals in buying common to all cultures where exchange occurs. Beyond meeting basic physiological needs, goods are bought to:

- Serve as a live information system to signal to others the user's self-image, rank and values. Personal products like cosmetics, clothes, watches, shoes, etc., and products like cars and life insurance would generally fall into this category.

- Mark Social events like marriage, and tine intervals like births. Cameras, expensive wines, wetting dresses and so on are commonly bought to mark occasions.

- Increase the time available for social involvement. Lawnmowers, washing machines, telephones and TV dinners might be grouped under this heading.

- Give order to events. Under this heading would be newspapers, magazines and other products that help make sense of what is happening in the world around.

Goods assembled in ownership 'present a set of meanings, more or less coherent, more or less intentional.' The consumer's pattern of consumption signals to the world what s/he wants the world to believe s/he stands for. People are anxious not to give the wrong signals. so, to avoid misinterpretation, the signals must be neither vague nor ambiguous but clearly recognizable or standardized in the culture.

I would add an important and constraining sub-goal to the Douglas list. This is that the consumer seeks expressions of such goals without incurring the sense of loss that results from the consumer coming to believe he or she made an error or mistake. Making an error or mistake presupposes the violation of a rule. At the most general level such rules are in respect of achieving goals in an efficient, socially, appropriate and consistent manner.

Consumer Wants.

Wants at the highest level are simply vague wants for some form of goal expression. Whereas to have a goal is to be disposed toward the state of affairs described by the goal, to have a want is to have a corresponding disposition to wish a certain state of affairs were true. Having a want does not necessitate having any special feelings. A consumer may want something over a long period of time without thinking about it except occasionally. Consumer wants are seldom like passions or tensions pressing for relief but dispositions that affect buying only by entering as input to some thinking process which may be sufficiently deliberate as to be called decision-making or so superficial as to represent habitual response.

At this stage it is not clear whether all wants can be related to any particular vision of the preferred life as many wants may be internalized as Dart of the socialization process. In any, case, consumers do act as if searching to find an overall pattern of wants that represent an acceptable specification of some vision of the preferred life. However the relationship between goals (at any level) and wants is seldom one of logical necessity but is contingent. Thus the relationship between good health and jogging is contingent on circumstances while jogging is not the only way to go about enjoying good health. Because of ignorance about the relationship between wants and the goals sought, consumers may want something but not know it and may think they want what in fact they do not want. Wanting something is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for its possessing worth for the consumer.

Consumer Beliefs.

A want is a disposition towards using, consuming or possessing something; it is not a mechanism compelling action. A consumer does not rush out and act on any want. Beliefs as to consequences will immediately come to mind --beliefs about the relationship between the consequences of buying this or that and the nature of the want, and belie's about the effect of buying on the promotion or frustration of other wants. Beliefs are dispositions to think of certain things as true and constitute convictions (held with different degrees of confidence) about what is, what is desirable and what ought to be done in given circumstances. Goals together with wants and beliefs constitute reasons for action, they are collectively the enabling conditions producing a state of readiness to consider buying when circumstances are right (e.g., product availability and money.)

Latent and Passive Wants and Exclusionary Reasons for Not-Buying

Consumer--Latent Wants.

A consumer may have a latent disposition to meet some want by some particular product brand. Hence the consumer can be said to have a latent want for that product /brand. A latent want is activated when the consumer with the latent want for product/brand XYZ perceives the potential of XYZ for meeting some goal better than known alternatives. The emphasis is on showing the connection between product and want/goal--not must on promoting awareness for the product.

Consumers have latent wants for better products and new-to-the-world products catering to new wants since what is on offer in a market at any one time never caters to, or exhausts, all the potential wants that are expressions of the consumer's goals.

Consumer--Passive Wants.

Consumers can be aware of a product's existence and be also aware of its potential for meeting some want but can be held back from buying it by price, social inhibitions (e.g., about hearing aids) or false beliefs and fears (e.g., 'I'll never understand how to use a computer'). Although the word passive suggests sitting back in some way, this need not be so. Someone held back by price from buying an IBM personal computer may be actively engaged in a search to get one cheaper. As there are always a number of people out there who have a latent want for the firm's product, it is always as well to know the inhibitors to see what can be done about them.


Both latent and passive wants can be activated if inhibitions can be removed or lowered. However, there are situations where the consumer is prevented from buying, regardless of the merits of the buy when considered purely in terms of its utility for meeting the goal/ want to which it caters. Such exclusionary reasons are:

- Authority-based factors. An industrial buyer, for example, may be under orders not to buy on merit but to buy from local suppliers. Alternatively, consumers may refrain from buying in obedience to their religion, etc.

- Promise-based factors. Promises can override the decision that would normally be made; as when a teenager promises his parents not to buy a motorbike even though a motorbike seems the best answer to his transportation problem.

- Situational factors. A consumer may refrain from buying through being unsure of his or her ability to judge due (say) to time pressure, lack of experience, emotional circumstances, or inhibiting physical and social surroundings, as well as shortage of cash.

Grounds for Choice

On what grounds do consumers choose among brands? Figure l suggests one classification:

- Past decisions giving rise to habitual choice.

- Picking one brand on no meaningful grounds, the consumer being indifferent to the differences among the brands in his evoked set.

- Subjective liking alone if the basis of preference is purely intrinsic.

- Choice made on the basis of the deliberation that accompanies decision-making.

We will consider each of the above in turn.


A great deal of intentional buying does not involve any deliberation on rival offerings. Just as the consumer does not decide to eat breakfast, he or she does not always decide each time on what product/brand to buy. Past decisions on what to buy act like precedents. If the past decision was mate to purchase brand XYZ and the decision was satisfactory, why not buy the same if conditions have remained the same? Habits not only save time and money but reinforce a common desire to be consistent with previous judgements. However, habits do change. Although there is a disposition to act as before in like circumstances if experience was satisfactory, there is also pressure not to be an 'old stick in the mud' but to be open to new ideas.

A change in habits can come about through a change in goal/want priorities, fleeting whims or new information suggesting better alternatives. But breaking ingrained habits may not be easy as change suggests risk with even overtones of being disloyal if relationships have become personalized.


When the consumer is indifferent as to which of several brands to buy, s/he is not predisposed to any single one of them and could toss a coin to settle choice. This is a 'picking' situation which should be distinguished from the situation where the consumer is disposed toward several brands and must settle the conflict by a decisions (Ullmann-Margalit and Morgenbesser, 1977). But an arbitrary choice may later be defended as a superior one so what was originally a matter of picking may become an habitual choice.

While the consumer may be indifferent to which brand to buy, this does not imply he regards the brands as equivalent or identical to each other. He just does not regard the differences as significant for his purposes. It is up to the seller to promote the differences in his offering as of significance to the consumer.

Subjective Liking--(Intrinsic Preference)

If preference is based purely on the basis of subjective liking, it is known as subjective preference (Von Wright 1963). Thus my liking may be for an apple rather than an orange. If I were asked why I chose an apple, my answer will not tell the questioner why I want what I like. I may point to the specific elements or ingredients that determine ny liking but in so doing I am not giving objective reasons for my purchase, like saying I buy apples for health reasons. Intrinsic preference involves the senses - the smell of flower, the looks of a package, the feel of material, the sound of a brand name, and so on. With intrinsic preference, no further purpose is involved beyond pleasure. Hence, if someone is asked why they enjoyed a particular show, they reply in terms of the enjoyment experienced (for example, exciting, funny, novel, soothing). Although intrinsic preferences can show a high degree of stability, they are also subject to change via education (e.g., taste for music) or new associations (e.g., knowing a piece of tasty meat was dog meat;

Reasoning--(Extrinsic Preference)

A want for some form of goal expression allied to the belief that feasible and socially appropriate means are available that are perceived as possible expressions of such wants provides the motivation to consider buying. But where there is uncertainty about which product/brand serves interests best, there will be a need to try and resolve any factual uncertainty about what is wanted and to compare this with what is known to be available. The deliberation that accompanies this process is the essence of what we mean by decision-making. The output of this process is potentially a set of objective reasons for supporting choice leading to extrinsic preference.

Outside the artificial conditions of the experimental situation, consumers do not seem to follow a strict means-end chain by setting out precisely what they want and evaluating brand attributes in the light of some precise specification. There is usually the probLem of knowing how much of some product attribute (e.g., horse power of a car !rv e) the want and how much of an attribute (e.g., fashion/status) is being provided by the different products or brands. Additionally, there is the difficulty of making intelligent tradeoffs (e.g., horse power for fuel economy) when these are required. [Because consumers do specify in (say) conjoint analysis the nature of their tradeoffs does not imply such tradeoffs are particularly meaningful to them.] The more general position seems to be that the consumer knows enough about what he or she seeks and proceeds not so much to compare attributes on brands but to rank the different sets of perceived benefits. Choices may, of course. turn out less than optimal because of errors due to lack of information, mistakes in logic and mistakes in (inductive) reasoning.

Use-Functions Vs. Generated Functions

Products are bought to perform certain functions, that is, to produce certain effects. Those functions that relate to extrinsic preference can be divided into use-functions and generated functions. Use-functions are the objective uses to which the product is put. The primary use-function of a dishwasher is to clean dishes, while the use-function of toothpaste is to clean teeth. Generally, use-functions dominate our thinking about products. Many products are 'type-identified' by reference to their use-function. Thus anything counts as a coffee percolator if its use-function is to percolate coffee. Similarly, anything qualifies as a 'seat' if its use-function is to be sat on. When we speak of some product being a 'good' one, we usually refer to how well it fulfills its use-function. For instance, a good watch usually means an accurate timekeeper. Disputes as to use-function(s) give rise to ambiguity as to what constitutes a 'good' product. The more accurately a manufacturer can establish a use-function for his product in a market or market segment, the more precisely performance requirements can be laid down.

The generated-function(s) of a product are the additional costs and benefits generated by using, consuming or possessing the product. Thus, while the use-function of a car is to provide flexible, fast means of transportation, this would not be the sole basis for purchasing a Rolls Royce. Such a car is a costly status symbol and may be bought primarily because of this. Some brands are rejected even when they are the most efficient means for the application envisaged. Thus a sitting-room chair is judged not simply on its likely performance as a sturdy, comfortable seat but on how it fits with the other furnishings, how it will be perceived by others, whether it is fashionable (or too fashionable!), its price (too high, or too low), risks of obsolescence, and so on.

Many products possess the sane use-function but not the same generated-function (for example, a mass produced dress versus a designer dress), and it may be the generated-function(s) that are vital. The extent to which products perform the same use-functions is a measure of the extent to which the products are substitutes. But whether such substitute products are directly competitive depends on the extent to which they are perceived as similar in terms of both use- and generated-functions and intrinsic liking. Thus a Rolls Royce and a Volkswagen are closer as substitutes than they are as immediate rivals.

Use-functions are generally more visible than generated-functions; indeed, many generated-functions are latent, that is, go unrecognized or unacknowledged. However, non-traditional use-functions may not be obvious and the discovery of new use-functions can be the basis of opening up new markets. Thus it was not obvious that there was a market for books where the primary use-function was to fulfill a role as decorative furniture'

Choice Criteria

What choice criteria do consumers use in decision-making? Concern for generated-functions leads to a consideration of integrative, economic and adaptive criteria, while a consideration of use-functions leads to a consideration of legalistic and technical performance factors.

Integrative Criteria

Integrative criteria refer to the rules consumers employ to choose brands that will better integrate them into

- their social milieu

- their personality, sense of integrity, projected status and self-image

The distinction is important since integrating with one's milieu means adhering to its norms but accommodating to the pressures of social life completely runs into conflict with satisfying private lives. Integrative criteria are most dominant in dress, home furnishings and decoration.

Convention can influence purchase so decisively that little deliberation takes place. This does not necessarily demonstrate that the consumer has low involvement with the product. On the contrary, the purchase can be so important (for example, a wedding dress) that the buyer adheres rigidly to the book. As Lewis (1969) points out, convention is conforming from choice to what are regarded as the legitimate expectations of others (for instance choosing clothes in conformity to the norms of those with whom we mix). Conventions are socially enforced in that failure to conform can evoke unfavorable reactions from others

Conformative behavior is not restricted to conforming behavior. Thus, if someone is deliberately not conforming to social norms (for example, not using a wedding ring), her behavior may still be conformative to some other set of norms.

Bandwagon and fashion influence purchase behavior (e.g., Cabbage Patch dolls) that is highly social. The payoff in fashion lies in identifying with the 'in' group in a manner that signals to the world that the person is unique or an 'insider' and not simply an t outsider' looking on.

Ego and status considerations enter into many purchase decisions. A woman selects a fragrance to suit the image she wishes to project, while a mink coat is a major status symbol. Men are also responsive to the demands of their egos and the desire for status. If we look at the lifestyles of people throughout the ages we are struck by the sacrifices in convenience and comfort of dress and so on in favor of ostentation and display.

People do not always choose in a way that will maximize personal returns to themselves. Sometimes they choose to forgo egoism and self-interest in order to do what they believe is right. Thus a person's sense of integrity may lead him to forgo the more lucrative investment in South Africa for a less materially rewarding investment.

Economic Criteria

Once the consumer is attracted to a product by the benefits it offers, interest shifts to what must be given up in return. Economic criteria like price and cost per unit of effort expended, are used by the consumer to order alternative offerings on the basis of the relative sacrifice being demanded. When such an ordering occurs the immediate consequences of purchase are known. Indecision may arise, however, because, though consumers may know the sacrifice, they are frequently unsure of the future consequences (benefits) of purchase in relation to their future (often uncertain) preferences. Just as failure to achieve some promotion at work is perceived as less of a loss than some demotion, the consumer is generally more concerned with avoiding a net loss than achieving an equivalent net gain.

Adaptive Criteria

A consumer is of ten uncertain as to the net benefits that will emerge from buying, using or consuming the product. The initial effect of uncertainty as to consequences and future preferences is to inhibit the want, that is, turn it into a passive want until uncertainty is reduced.

For many products, consumers have well-anchored opinions, but for purchases far removed from their experiences there is uncertainty (and often anxiety) over the possibility of making errors and mistakes (that is, not following the right rules). Adaptive criteria refer to the adaptations that occur in coming to terms with uncertainty over the consequences of buying one brand rather than another and the information overload in attempting to master facts about a product.

There are a number of strategies followed by consumers in adapting to uncertainty:

- imitate those 'in the know';

- seek advice;

- buy on reputation/the familiar;

- sample only;

- seek guarantees and reassurance;

- do comparison shopping.

The desire to reduce uncertainty is a major motivation in buying since to be sensitive to uncertainty is to be sensitive to the likelihood of making an error and making an error is damaging to the consumer's sense of competence. Uncertainty avoidance is one explanation for habitual buying since sticking to the tried and true involves no unpleasant surprises. Many consumers seem prepared to sacrifice the advantages of the newest model in the interest of reducing risk.


Where choice is dictated by the demands of others, the criteria can be termed legalistic to suggest buying rules imposed from outside. Legalistic criteria is applied to avoid conflict with what the consumer regards as some legitimate authority (e.g., the government and its safety regulations etc.) or because he puts the interests of others first and accepts what he believes to be their criteria (e.g., wife's known preferences).

Technical Criteria

Technical criteria embrace the manifest physical attributes and performance characteristics that the consumer believes are relevant to the use-functions envisaged for the product. Tradeoff problems abound not only against price. Thus a product (say) that can only be more effective in some use-function (e.g., a water-repellent raincoat) by detracting from aesthetic appeal may be rejected.

Choice -> Preference (intrinsic or extrinsic)

The output of a decision, unlike the output of habit, picking and intrinsic preference does not simply bring out into the open choices that were merely unexpressed. It establishes in fact a want that in its specificity was not there before. The choice process in decision-making is one of coming to prefer as the specific want takes shape. Hence to inquire about preferences is to assume such a process has already occurred.

Intention -> Willing

For a consumer to have a preference is not sufficient-the buyer must form an intention to buy plus willing the act of buying to occur. One writer compares forming an intention to putting the whole faculty into gear without pressing the accelerator which is what 'willing' is all about.


Appendix 1 is an account given by a housewife of buying the same dishwashing liquid as she habitually bought. Contrary to what might be expected Mary is very conscious of the rules that first led her to choose Palmolive dishwashing liquid, viz:

- Goals, Wants, Beliefs

1. Goals

    General:    i. Signal to the world self-image/ values

                    ii. Increase time available

    Specific:    i. Clean dishes in an efficient and socially acceptable way

2. Want expressing the goal

     Dishwashing liquid which

           - is good for the hands

           - cleans well

           - retains suds

3. Beliefs

           Palmolive has performed well in the past and is still my favorite choice.

Choice criteria on which habit is based (initial rules leading to adoption)

1. Intrinsic:

          i. Packaging Pretty, clear plastic, emerald green color

         ii. Smell pleasant--nice clean smell

2. Extrinsic:

         i. Technical

               - good performance: clean and shining dishes, cleans greasy skillets and frying pans

               - makes hands feel soft not itchy

        ii. Integrative

              - mother and friends use it

              - can identify with women on TV advertisement

              - ego-conscientious about hands looking nice

       iii. Adaptive

             - Palmolive familiar

             - willing to try samples just in case

      iv. Economical

            - reasonable price (less than Ivory)

            - only one squirt needed

            - suds last a long time

A more hermeneutical analysis would seek reasons behind reasons to achieve more depth of understanding but we are content here with simply showing the consumer's reasons for choice.





"I intend to buy Palmolive dishwashing liquid. I am very conscientious about my hands. They have to look the best at all times. So I select a detergent which cares about my hands and gives good performance. I have tried Joy, Lux, Octagon and many others. Palmolive is the one I like the best. I have no hesitation about going to the counter and putting it in my grocery basket.

"Palmolive is very soft to my hands. I can wash umpteen dishes with it and my hands are still soft. One thing I cannot tolerate is rough and ruddy hands. The first thing one notices in a woman is her hands. I don't even use hand lotion after washing. Also, I save some money cause I can do many dishes and still have suds. I have suds remaining to clean greasy cast iron skillets and frying pans. Whereas the other detergents, I found that you can only do four or five dishes and then had to add more detergent. My dishes are clean and shiny after using only one squirt of Palmolive.

"Every time a new detergent comes out they send me samples in the mail. I use the samples because I don't like to waste anything and I like to try new things. But none have outperformed Palmolive. You know, I used to use Octagon all the time until I got a Palmolive sample. Octagon comes in a big bottle but it keeps losing its suds. The large economy size was not as economical as I thought. I used Joy but it was rough on my hands and made them itch. They brag about Ivory being soft to the hands, but my hands were very itchy and sensitive.

"My friends at work also use Palmolive. Even my mother uses it - she is 78 years old and suffers from arthritis. I even like their TV ad with Madge who has her customers soak their hands in Palmolive!"


Comments while Mary was purchasing product at large supermarket:

"I am buying Palmolive (32 ounces) with confidence. I used to buy this junk--Octagon. You need all 48 ounces to wash your dishes! I don't care if it is economically priced.

"I have tried the majority of these brands. Joy is too strong for my hands and Octagon is sudsless. Ivory is more expensive than Palmolive and is not as good. I'd probably buy Ivory, though, if they didn't have Palmolive. But I am not overly impressed with Ivory's cleaning. They sure do advertise a lot! It's foolish for me to pay more (for Ivory) when I like Palmolive.

"It is the prettiest bottle on the shelf. They all have similar form but I like the clear bottle, and the emerald color is attractive. It's better looking than Ajax's whisky color."


Comments after using Palmolive:

"I am very happy with my purchase. My dishes are clean and shiny and my hands feel soft and smooth. I am not afraid to do my dishes before I go out for the evening because my hands look and feel good. It also has a good clean odor. This gives me more confidence that my dishes are clean. I plan on continuing to buy Palmolive unless something better comes out and is less expensive. But it will have to be proven to me."


Bleicher, Josef (1982), The Hermeneutic Imagination, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Douglas, Mary and Baron Isherwood (1979), The World of Goods, New York: Basic Books.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg (1975), Truth and Method, New York: Seabury Press.

Goldman, A.I. (1970), A Theory of Human Action, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Harre; R., and P.F. Secord (1973) The Explanation of Social Behavior, New Jersey: Littlefield, Adams & Co.

Howard, Roy (1982) Three Faces of Hermeneutics, Berkeley: University of California Press

Lewis, David K. (1969), Convention: A Philosophical Study, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Ullmann-Margalit, E. and S. Morgenbesser (1977) "Picking and Choosing," Social Research, 44 (Winter), 757-785.

Von Wright, G.H. (1963), The Logic of Preference, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Winch, P.G. (1958), The Idea of a Social Science, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.



John O'Shaughnessy, Columbia University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12 | 1985

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